Hodge Defense Systems Inc. is currently making some of the finest AR-15s in the world today…if you can find one.
In recent conversations with industry folks who live and breathe ARs, Jim Hodge’s name and his rifles have come up more than a few times.
To learn a bit more about the legend of Jim and Hodge Defense Systems, we reached out to the man himself. Our goal was to simply dive a bit deeper into what, to me, has always felt like a somewhat mysterious company.
Q: Jim, thanks for the willingness to talk with us. Can you give our readers a bit of background on who you are and how Hodge Defense came about?
Jim Hodge: “Who I am” is just like everyone else. I’m just a regular guy. I just finished cleaning my kitchen…I let my dog out, I changed the litter…and this, that and the other. I’m just a regular guy. Where Hodge Defense started was just a fascination with the AR when I was a police officer. I was a police officer for a number of years.
Then 9/11 happened. Shortly thereafter, I started contracting for a big company called Blackwater. From there, other contracting opportunities with various government organizations came up. I carried the AR-15, and being that I was interested in it….well, I looked at it like “if I could change something that I felt needed to be changed, just how would I do it?”
Q: Had you had any industry experience prior?
Jim Hodge: I have had friends throughout this industry for 17-18 years, maybe longer. I’ve seen companies grow. I don’t want to say I was a part of their growth, because it was all them. But in the background, I would receive their product and evaluate it. Not to report on to the masses, but just to say, “hey, have you considered doing this to your product?”
I’ve maintained those relationships up until today, and I enjoy those relationships. Many are with my competitors who I value and respect immensely. I have friends in various companies…Daniel Defense, Knight’s Armament and H&K all the way out to Leupold, L3, Surefire…and especially Magpul.
Putting Down the Sword
I enjoy those relationships, and as a guy starting off in this business, it was helpful as I said to myself “O.K. I’ve been traveling all over the world. It’s time for me to lay down the sword and pick up the shield.”
And my wife was also strongly encouraging me to “do for me” now, instead of doing for other people in the industry…Doing something I could put my own name on. That’s where Hodge Defense started. It was basically, “hey, time for you to stay home and chase me around the house versus chasing bad guys all over everywhere else.”
Q: How did you approach Hodge Defense at first?
Jim Hodge: To make a long story short, I approached it knowing that this was a tough and very competitive industry…and knowing I wanted to do something of quality, not just do something of volume.
So materials were my first thing. I already knew what I wanted in barrels. I already knew what I wanted in other components. And, I looked at from the perspective of “if I was ‘king for a day’, and money was not an issue, how would I put my ultimate together?”
I looked at it from that perspective…but in a way of reality. Nothing super “
Not that I’m a “super ninja” or anything like that, but I’ve had my time behind a weapon or two in various places, and I know that the level of quality is something that can save a life or not…Especially to an operator, his partner or his team. So that was my philosophy: “to build the best combative gun, not necessarily the best commercial gun.”
Developing the Hodge Defense Mod 2
From there, I started developing Mod 2, knowing that a “parts gun” is just a parts gun and you really can’t have any identity unless you start putting your own touches on it. So, I basically got away from everything that was once investment cast and I focused on materials.
So, I went down that Aluminum Lithium road. Aluminum Lithium is an alloy that is a fairly exotic alloy. It’s kind of like the poor man’s Titanium. It’s harder to get a hold of than Titanium, and harder to mold.
Then, I also knew that I wanted hammer-forged barrels. So, I went with, what was in my opinion, and still is my opinion, the best company producing hammer forged barrels, FN. And with that, the Mod 2 was created and born.
Change in Direction
Jim Hodge: But then, sometimes in life you think you go down a road and then all of a sudden a different direction happens. That happened with the Mod 2.
I wanted to build the best combative rifle for the commercial masses. However, it ended up flip-flopping on me. The Mod 2 was shortly after adopted by the U.S. Army…the Soldier Enhancement Program…and voted in by a Council of Colonels.
Q: Can you talk a bit about what that means?
Jim Hodge: That means it was there to be considered…to inform future requirements. It wasn’t there because “Hey, this is going to be our next gun.” It was “This is what we consider ‘best-in-class’ for us to learn on and write future requirements around, based around the M4A1 carbine.”
So, three years of dealing with that…the acquisition and testing, has given the Mod 2 the reputation of what it is today.
Q: I’d agree that the Mod 2 does enjoy a sterling reputation…but the other part of that reputation is that it’s almost impossible to obtain.
Jim Hodge: Not a lot of Mod 2’s have made it out to the commercial market. Not a lot of them will. There will be some. There are some out there. But it’s such an expensive gun to do. It’s hard for me to be a small company and leverage myself and an enormous amount money to put a product like that out in such a competitive market. That said, those that have been out have done very well.
Q: People who do own Hodge guns often comment on how comfortable they feel in hand…Can you talk about other tweaks you made that would account for this feel?
Jim Hodge: Well, I’ve incorporated more mass. Lightweight is important, but I think you can build a gun that is too lightweight. You can over swing targets. The felt recoil impulse changes. There’s a fine line of making it comfortable and well-balanced as opposed to super light or awkward and heavy.
I put a lot of emphasis into how the gun feels and balances, to include even the taper of the barrel. When I developed the Wedge Lock rail, I developed it in unison with Mega, which is now owned by Zev. They patented the wedge system. I had had a little bit of input but it was really their patent. The rest of the handguard is architecturally “Hodge Defense” as far as size, and how it feels in your hand.
I wanted it to feel almost like a warm bar of soap in your hand. Something that isn’t too angular…something that gives tactile feedback automatically to your brain that says “hey, this is actually fairly comfortable in the hand.”
Comfort Improves Performance
If a gun balances right, feels good in your hand, and points naturally, that’s part of that confidence of a shooter…if that makes any sense. If you feel comfortable behind something, you have the ability potentially to use it better.
It’s analogous to taking a nice over and under shotgun just fitted for you, that balances for you, and it’s just a confident feeling that you have that it just fits better in your hand than something else. Now, I can’t dictate what feels good in other people’s hands. I just did it for myself really. If it feels good to me, hopefully it will feel good to other people. What I know is what I like.
Guns and Pasta
It’s also analogous to if you and I were to go to the grocery store, and we were to buy the same Roma tomatoes, the same basil, the same pasta, the same garlic. You go into one kitchen and I go into the other kitchen and we make spaghetti. Our spaghettis would taste different, even using the same ingredients. Yours might taste better to you, because you like different things. That’s kind of how I look at it…the difference being my Roma tomatoes are a little bit more fresh…Now does it really matter? Well, to me it does.
Q: One of the other comments I hear about your guns is just how nice the fit and finish is. How does that happen?
Jim Hodge: Sometimes we all get a little lucky with that kind of thing, right? There are some dimensions that I’ve changed, but everything I do is reverse-compatible to mil-spec. But I hold my tolerances a little bit tighter. Part of the trick is finding someone that can machine to a degree of tolerances and having it repeatable…having a level of consistency in that.
Like everything else, one receiver set may fit just a little bit different than another receiver set, but they still fall within the tolerance that everything falls within. It’s just that my tolerances are a little bit narrower, if that makes any sense.
Q: Hodge Defense also sells individual components. Can you talk about those offerings?
Jim Hodge: There was a long time where I didn’t want to do that. You lose control. If I sell a receiver set, and someone builds a gun with whatever components or barrel they build it with, I don’t have the control. Which, frankly I don’t need…but I don’t have the control of the quality of barrel they are putting in. So, someone could say “Hey look at my Hodge Defense gun” and it runs like shit because of some of the things they put in it…well, that’s kind of a reflection on me.
Q: If it’s any consolation, I’ve not heard any one saying that about a rifle with Hodge components just yet.
Jim Hodge: I got really lucky, man. It turned out guys started buying my Hodge Defense components trying to build replicas. It’s not like “I’m just going to buy this and throw this barrel and this handguard on it.” It’s been “I want to build a proper Hodge gun because it’s hard for me to buy a proper, fully-assembled Hodge gun by Jim. So, I’m going to try to do it myself.”
Q: Even with these components floating around, on some of the forums I frequent, the sight of a Hodge logo seems to generate a bit of buzz.
Well, those components are out there. But my uppers, lowers, barrels, handguards…I don’t flood the market. It’s kind of created a secondary market. So, it’s like being in a club in a way…having something that is a little bit more exclusive than some one else’s.
Not necessarily just in quality, but you go to the range and you see a bunch of different guns out there…well, you’ll probably never see a Hodge. But when you do, my hope is, and people still don’t know my brand, but my hope is there’s someone there saying “holy crap, where did you get that!?” That’s my goal.
Q: For as hard as these guns are to get, let’s say someone in the military or in law enforcement had what they felt was a pressing need. How would that work? Is there a way that they could obtain one?
Jim Hodge: 80 percent of what Hodge Defense does is not commercial. I’ll leave it at that. But do know that I care about the consumer. I really do. Without them, I am nothing. I care…I truly do. The philosophy of my company is just being a stand-up organization and a stand-up company.
So, Hodge Defense is going to continue to push guns…full guns. I’m going to continue to push uppers, lowers and barrels, and at greater quantities. But, it’s a mature build-up. It’s one where I don’t see myself ever industrializing to the point of just knocking guns out for the sake of knocking guns out.
This is a tricky thing…but I want to say that “I build to the need, but the need is always beyond what my build capability is.” And part of it is I don’t leverage my company financially. My company is not a wealthy company by any stretch of the imagination. But I also have no debt. I’m not incumbent on labor costs. I would never want to have to hire employees, then as a downturn happens, have to let go of them.
Maintaining Quality vs. Demand
I’m just going to do it at a snail’s pace. And as Hodge Defense matures and gradually builds, I will try my best to keep up with some of the demand, while maintaining a level of quality that is hard to come by in this industry.
Now, there are again, lots of great companies bringing on great quality. But because I don’t have a whole lot of help…well, it’s just me, man. It all falls back on me. So, I will do it at the appetite I can do it at, if that makes any sense.
Q: So, is Hodge Defense REALLY just you, then?
Jim Hodge: I have “surge people” that will come in if I am doing a larger build. I have medically or time-wise retired vets that can come in that work locally. We just call it a “build party.” They have worked with me since day one. These guys have full-time jobs elsewhere, but if I’m like “hey, I need to do a build of whatever number of guns,” it’s kind of like me blowing into a bullhorn and saying “ok, team…unite!”
They then come over and we build the guns. I keep no inventory at the shop. It does me no good keeping it there. I build to whatever demand there is, and they are shipped typically that same day or within a week or so.
Personal favors for guys takes me a bit longer, only because a lot of what I do is not building guns. I’m involved with other endeavors that are industry or government related and that takes most of my time.
So, it’s like “O.K…we’re sold out of everything.” I’ll sit on it a bit, and then I can afford to go buy this number of barrels, this number of handguards, this number of whatever via cash, throw them out onto the market, then take those profits and save them for the next time I want to do a push and pay cash for it.
Q: Just to put a number on it…how many Mod 2’s would you say are currently floating around out there?
Jim Hodge: In the wild? There’s a few hundred. A lot of my customers that have Mod 2s don’t go on social media. They’re out there, but they’re not the kind of guys that pop over to this forum or that forum or the Bookface or Instagram or whatever. They’re either using them, or they’re fairly quiet people.
Q: Final thing…now that you’ve been “king for a day” and put your unique twist on the AR platform, what’s next, in your opinion? I’m curious, what does the future hold for the AR?
Jim Hodge: I think the AR platform is here for another decade or two, which is a long time. But it’s dwindling. I think it’s reached its prime. My next Hodge Defense projects are not even centric to the AR or the Stoner design…even remotely. My next projects are not next generation, but next level…not so much as the weapon, but so much in the architecture of how it can be deployed. I’ll leave it at that…
Now, I’m not saying Hodge Defense is going to get out of the AR business. I’m working on a new rail right now. I am always trying to improve what we have, but my main, main, main focus is not three years from now, it’s 20 years from now.
Another way to describe Hodge Defense is that it is more an “architectural firm/skunkworks” or whatever than a factory or a shop or something. I think more about design…and I’m no engineer, but I think more about the design of things. Not just including guns, but to include optics, optic mounts…
A tremendous thanks to Jim Hodge of Hodge Defense Systems Inc. for taking the time to sit with us for this article. A very special thanks also
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